Stand up and be counted

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The census, that decennial counting of the country's population, is an institution of our democracy that most Americans tend to forget, ignore and frankly misunderstand, nudged only at the last minute to account for themselves and their households. 

Above all else, an accurate counting of who we are, where we live and what we do is integral to how our governments are structured as a result of the drawing of congressional and state legislative voting lines.

But census data, gleaned from both the decennial count as well as the bureau's annual American Community Survey, are also key to how federal aid is apportioned, how policymakers make decisions and how businesses operate, as a joint report by the American Enterprise Institute and the Brooking Institute explains.

Counting ourselves has been a regular and predictable process every decade since 1790,  "a sweeping endeavor," The New York Times calls it today in an important editorial, a process that serves as "the federal government’s chief source of data about the American people and economy."

Now though, as The Times editorial board points out, with just a little more than two years left before the next decade, the census is in danger, threatened by a lack of administrative direction and budget underfunding and challenged in an environment where facts are questioned and government data collection is suspect.

Yes, data can be manipulated. The disastrous partisan redrawing of voting maps after the 2010 census, which has in turn led to the legislative dysfunction and political intransigence that plagues Congress, is a prime example.  

In many states, the political party in control -- Republicans, this time around -- used that data to draw state and Congressional voting maps that favored their members. Using a variety of constitutionally suspect gerrymandering tools, they created districts that virtually ensured re-election and dispensed with the need for lawmakers to remain accountable to their constituents.  

Insulated from any meaningful challenge by a member of the opposing party, lawmakers have also grown less likely to reach across the aisle and compromise on legislation.

But the courts have used the same data and tossed those maps out, sending legislators back to the drawing board again and again to redraw voting lines in accordance with constitutional parameters. 

Like it or not, we still need the data. Lawmakers remain constitutionally required to authorize its collection. And staffing the bureau and prioritizing its funding ahead of 2020 are critical and immediate steps needed to ensure that an accurate counting takes place.

Those in control in Washington who ignore those facts do so at their own peril, as The Times notes:

"The census begins on April 1, 2020, and it must be completed in the summer for congressional reapportionment and redistricting to take place. Any failure would be immediately apparent — and it would tar Republicans at the height of the 2020 primary campaign season. Perhaps that reality will help inspire congressional leaders to support an accurate count, demonstrating to Americans that, even in the age of Trump, facts matter."

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Sharon McCloskeyAll